The Soufan Group Morning Brief



The U.S. government has broadened an interpretation on which citizens can be subject to physical or digital surveillance to include “homegrown violent extremists,” according to official documents seen by Reuters. The change last year to a Department of Defense manual on procedures governing its intelligence activities was made possible by a decades-old presidential executive order, bypassing congressional and court review.

The new manual, released in August 2016, permits the collection of information about Americans for counterintelligence purposes “when no specific connection to foreign terrorist(s) has been established,” according to training slides created last year by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The slides were obtained by Human Rights Watch through a FISA request about the use of federal surveillance laws.

The slides list the attacks in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015 and Orlando, Florida, in June 2016 as examples that would fall under the “homegrown violent extremist” category. The shooters had declared fealty to ISIS shortly before or during the attacks, but investigators found no actual links to the organization. Michael Mahar, the Department of Defense’s senior intelligence oversight official, said that the phrase “homegrown violent extremist,” while listed in the Air Force training slide, is not an official phrase used by the Defense Department. Reuters
Human Rights Watch: New Evidence Suggests Monitoring of Americans

The Trump administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on eight individuals and a business affiliated with ISIS in Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, marking the first coordinated action taken with the new Terrorist Financing Targeting Center led by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The fresh round of sanctions was unveiled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as he embarks on a trip to the Middle East intended to strengthen America’s capacity to crack down on terrorist financing networks.

The Terrorist Financing Targeting Center was established in May during a trip by President Trump to Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are also members of the group and have agreed to share information about the financing of terrorism. “Our enemies have felt the effects of being blocked from the world financial system,” Mnuchin said in a speech in Riyadh. “They are finding it harder to raise, move, and distribute money.” New York Times, Bloomberg

President Donald Trump launched a program on Wednesday to expand testing of drones to include flights over people, nighttime operations, and flights out of sight of the operator, the White House said. The pilot program aims to speed up the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace system and test drone detection and tracking while waiving some limits on their use.

Under a memorandum signed by Trump on Wednesday, states and local governments would be able to seek Federal Aviation Administration approval for testing and expanded use. The White House stopped short of proposing new regulations that would allow broader nationwide use of drones or any timetable for new authority. Reuters, Washington Post, The Verge

Kaspersky says it obtained suspected NSA hacking code from U.S. computer: Moscow-based antivirus software maker Kaspersky Lab said on Wednesday that its security software had taken source code for a secret American hacking tool from a personal computer in the U.S. In September, U.S. officials ordered Kaspersky’s products removed from government computers, saying the firm was vulnerable to Kremlin influence and that using the software could jeopardize national security.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that hackers working for the Russian government appeared to have targeted an NSA worker by using Kaspersky software to identify classified files in 2015. Israeli officials reported the operation to the U.S. after they hacked into Kaspersky’s network. Kaspersky began an internal inquiry in a bid to restore trust, and on Wednesday it said it had stumbled on the code in 2014 when the consumer version of its popular software flagged a zip file as malicious on a U.S. computer. Kaspersky said the matter was reported to Chief Executive Eugene Kaspersky, who ordered that the copy of the code be destroyed. The company said it found no evidence that it had been hacked by Russian spies or anyone except the Israelis. Reuters, Bloomberg

How Facebook, Google and Twitter ‘embeds’ helped Trump in 2016: Facebook, Twitter and Google played a far deeper role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign than has previously been disclosed, with company employees taking on the kind of political strategizing that campaigns typically entrust to their own staff or paid consultants, according to a study conducted by communications professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Utah.

While the social media companies call it standard practice to work hand-in-hand with high-spending advertisers like political campaigns, the new research details how the staffers assigned to the 2016 candidates frequently acted more like political operatives, doing things like suggesting methods to target difficult-to-reach voters online. Such support was critical for the Trump campaign, which didn’t invest heavily in its own digital operations during the primary season and made extensive use of Facebook, Twitter and Google “embeds” for the general election. Politico

Judge gives research firm in Trump-Russia probe more time to answer subpoena: A U.S. judge this week temporarily extended the deadline for Fusion GPS, the research firm that hired a former British spy to investigate Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, to reach an agreement with Congress over a subpoena for the firm’s bank records. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month subpoenaed an unidentified bank for the last two years of Fusion GPS’s accounts. Congressional investigators and Special Counsel Robert Mueller are pursuing allegations in the dossier about connections between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Reuters

The American commander of the international military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria said Wednesday that the militants are “on the run” and facing defeat as the U.S. coalition makes plans to kill or capture the several thousand remaining insurgents. ISIS is clinging to roughly 5 percent of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria three years ago, Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II. “They cannot hold territory,” he said of the militant group. “They cannot hold any viable cities. Their leaders have abandoned them.”

But Lt. Gen. Funk warned that ISIS militants in both countries are likely to mount terrorist attacks and maintain underground cells even after losing control of territory. He said the coalition planned to turn soon to training Iraqi security forces to combat any ISIS resurgence. Col. Ryan Dillon, the coalition spokesman in Baghdad, said timelines for the mission’s future have not been discussed in detail with the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned during a state visit to Turkey on Wednesday that driving the militants from their territory would not eliminate the threat. New York Times
Reuters: Iraq Readies for Final Offensive on ISIS near Syrian Border
Voice of America: Europe Braces for More Attacks From Islamic State
LA Times: Thousands of Russians Joined ISIS and Brought Their Children. Now Relatives are Trying to Bring Them Home

One week before President Trump departs on his first trip to Asia, his secretary of defense is paving the way for his visit, stopping in several of the same countries on the president’s schedule and meeting with U.S. allies about continued provocations by North Korea. Later this week, Secretary James Mattis stops in South Korea, where he will co-chair a major security meeting with his South Korean counterpart that will largely focus on how to deal with the North Korean threat.

Mattis was also in the Philippines this week for a meeting with defense ministers from Southeast Asia. On the sidelines of that summit, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan agreed to expand information sharing regarding the North Korean threat, as well as to increase the number of joint training exercises with long-range U.S. bombers. ABC News

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that Russia was hurting U.S. efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons while China had been helpful. In an interview with Fox Business Network, Trump said it would be easier to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue if the U.S. had a better relationship with Russia. “China is helping us and maybe Russia’s going through the other way and hurting what we’re getting,” Trump said of the North Korea situation. Reuters

A series of weapons tests by North Korea and a string of increasingly bellicose exchanges between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have ratcheted up tensions. A senior North Korean official issued a warning this week that the world should take “literally”  his country's threat to test a nuclear weapon above ground. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho last month threatened to drop a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. The official also implied that diplomatic channels between the U.S. and North Korea are nonexistent, despite statements by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that they are still open. CNN, The Hill

Trump says he did not ‘specifically’ order Niger mission: President Donald Trump said Wednesday he did not “specifically” order the military mission in Niger this month that left four American soldiers dead. Trump told reporters before he departed for Texas that he had given his generals that authority. When asked if he had authorized the mission, Trump said, “No, I didn't. Not specifically.” There are still many unanswered questions about the October 4 Niger attack, which remains under investigation. Questions also remain about the operation’s planning, why it took so long to recover one of the bodies, and whether the U.S. had sufficient intelligence and equipment for the operation. NBC News, The Hill

Iraq’s Abadi rejects Kurdish call to freeze independence referendum: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded Thursday that Kurdish leaders cancel the results of its independence referendum, rejecting a proposal from Erbil to “freeze” the outcome instead and begin talks over the future of the region. “We accept only the cancellation of the referendum and the adherence to the constitution,” Abadi said. “We warned against holding the referendum, but to no avail.” Iraqi government forces swept through swathes of Kurdish-controlled territories in recent weeks in an offensive that appears be moving forward in spite of Erbil’s attempts at reconciliation. Kurdish leaders said Wednesday that the freezing of the referendum would “prevent further violence.” CNN

U.S. airstrikes in Yemen kill ISIS militants: The U.S. military conducted two airstrikes targeting ISIS in Yemen on Wednesday, killing nine militants, according to U.S. Central Command. The two strikes hit ISIS vehicles and took place in al Bayda Governorate in Yemen. The airstrikes mark the second time the U.S. has targeted ISIS in Yemen with a series of strikes. Military strikes there have historically targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. CNN

Turkish court releases eight rights activists on bail in terrorism trial: A Turkish court on Wednesday ordered the release on bail of eight human rights activists, including the director of the local branch of Amnesty International, pending a verdict in their trial on terrorism charges. The case against the activists, who number 11 in total and face up to 15 years in prison each if found guilty, has become a flashpoint in Turkey’s tense relations with Europe and heightened concerns of an authoritarian turn under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Almost all of the eleven were detained in July after participating in a workshop on digital security held on an island off the coast of Istanbul. The charges included assisting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by Ankara of engineering last year’s coup attempt. Reuters, Associated Press

BBC appeals to UN over Iran’s crackdown on journalists: The BBC’s director general has accused Iran of “unprecedented collective punishment” as the corporation appealed to the UN over crackdowns on Iranian employees of its London-based Persian service. Iranian authorities have imposed an asset freeze on at least 152 BBC Persian journalists and former contributors, preventing them from conducting financial transactions or selling properties in their homeland because of their affiliation with the British broadcaster. David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, confirmed he had received a complaint from the BBC about their treatment. He urged Iran’s government to stop harassing BBC Persian staff and their families. The Guardian, BBC News
Why it’s tough to get tough on Iran: “The Trump administration is realizing that changing Iran policy is difficult—not because Washington’s problems with Iran are unclear but because they cannot be addressed without changing the United States’ broader policy in the Middle East,” Afshon Ostovar writes in Foreign Affairs. “In particular, if Washington does not rethink its strategy toward Syria, U.S. Iran policy will remain ineffective.”

Somalia doesn’t need tears. Help us fight terrorism: “Condemnation isn’t going to help Somalia battle the Shabab and its bomb makers. To defeat Shabab terrorism, Somalia requires expertise and equipment that it lacks, and it needs a new paradigm of cooperation between Somali security services and our international partners,” director general of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency Abdillahi Mohamed Sanbalooshe writes in the New York Times. “Vital information and evidence of crimes committed on Somali soil continue to be exported and analyzed abroad, denying us the opportunity to protect our own citizens and to hold the perpetrators to account.”

I prosecuted terrorists for President Bush. Now my family in Iran may be banned from visiting: “As a former federal counterterrorism prosecutor, I know the importance of protecting America’s national security,” Javad Khazaeli writes in the New York Times. “President Trump’s Muslim ban ignores data and facts, relying instead on Islamophobia. I know his ban won’t make our country safer.”

U.S. loses in the Mideast even as it wins against Islamic State: “Those in the Trump and Obama administration might be loathe to admit it, but over the last three years both followed a similar approach on Middle East policy,” Peter Apps writes in Reuters. “The problem is that there is little clarity on what will now define U.S. Mideast policy. Without a single guiding principle, there is the real risk that an already-conflicted approach could fall apart entirely.”

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